Breaking Chains

Waiting for the birth of a first nephew is supposed to be a time of great happiness. For this aunt the wait is carving out a loss that will echo throughout a lifetime.

Any day now, I am going to be an aunt. According to the ultrasound, the first child of my family’s next generation is a boy. I am told he’s going to be named after one of my grandfathers.

This is supposed to be a time of joy and anticipation. But my brother’s wife is not Jewish and this child will be baptized and raised as a Christian. And I feel emotionally raw, beyond ambivalent.

I have only one sibling: my elder brother. While I have chosen to live a traditionally observant lifestyle, he long ago abandoned our culturally Jewish upbringing. Several years ago, he married quite a lovely woman who isn’t Jewish. My sister-in-law was a practicing Catholic. Prior to the wedding, she told me that they would raise their children Episcopalian, a Protestant denomination that does not require spouses to convert. Although my brother professes no interest in Judaism, he apparently would never convert to another faith.

Prior to their engagement, my brother and I discussed his disregard for the faith and culture in which we were raised. He derided it as “tribalism.” The extent of his disinterest—scorn, really—shocked and hurt me. Somehow, I managed to put aside my feelings and was a supportive sister—a bridesmaid, even—until the very end of the ceremony, when for some reason, they included the Jewish tradition of stepping on a glass. It usually signals to those watching that it’s time to yell, “Mazal tov!” At his wedding, most of the guests didn’t know what he had just done and those of us who did were baffled by its inclusion.

My desire for my family to be a part of the Jewish future was stronger than Universalism.

I remember thinking melodramatically: “That was the sound of my mother’s heart breaking.” And then, something in my own heart altered. The crushing of that glass has meaning, I thought to myself. That smashing sound is meant to remind the bride and groom—at the moment of their greatest happiness—of the destruction of the Temple, the beginning of 2,000 years of exile and wandering, during which we clung stubbornly to our faith in spite of back-breaking, murderous persecution.

At that moment, my sense of connection to Judaism and the Jewish people defied my progressive principles. My desire for my family to be a part of the Jewish future was more important to me than Universalism.

It’s not that I have disdain for non-Jewish traditions. I simply love Judaism. It is my identity and my way in the world; it is what teaches me how to be and for what to strive. It is the most meaningful thing in my life and passing it on to the children I hope to one day have is my most precious aspiration.

I view marriage as two people joining together to build a home. Jewish tradition refers to this as a ba’ayit ne’eman b’yisroel, “a faithful house of Israel,” a new home in which Jewish children will be nurtured, educated and loved. And they, in turn, will pass their heritage onto the generation after them.


Now, some five years hence, I feel strangely disconnected to the proceedings in my brother’s household—the showers, decorating the nursery…

I feel no resentment toward my sister-in-law and certainly none to the nephew-to-be. If anything, I am glad that my brother chose a woman who lives her life according to an ethical system, even if it is not mine. I am grateful that her son will not be presented with a hodgepodge of incompatible religious doctrines and told that he may “choose” among them at some future date. He will be raised within a moral framework and without the confusion of parents trying to be all things to all faiths. For that, I am thankful.

I am thankful my nephew will be raised within a moral framework.

But I feel a tremendous sense of loss. Instead of a bris to plan, there will be a baptism. There was a time that Jewish children were literally kidnapped in order to be baptized. Now it’s no longer necessary—we deliver direct. There will be no pidyon haben, redemption of the first-born.

These ties that bind families together with generations before are simply not there. If my nephew were to attend my Passover Seder, he would not be able to ask the Four Questions. Why is this night different from other nights? Because my nephew is not Jewish.

Families come together to celebrate holidays and simchas, joyous occasions. My nephew and I will not share the same holidays and he will not have a bar mitzvah for me to attend.

My mother shares my pained ambivalence. She knows that there will always be a barrier between her and her first grandchild, a reminder of my brother’s rejection of our heritage. My father, on the other hand, has announced his intentions to “work on him.” He told me he is going to purchase a Chai necklace for him, as well as Israel Bonds. He is preparing for some sort of religious guerilla warfare. I shudder to think of what is to come: “Be Jewish, kiddo! You get eight days of presents!” Even on a more substantive level, this move is wrong.

Were the situation reversed—had I married a non-Jewish man and given birth to a child we were raising in my faith, I would be horrified if my father-in-law decided to “work on him.”
To my knowledge, my brother and his wife do not know about my ambivalence. The pain I feel is too deep and too raw to share. Nor would it do anything except ravage a relationship already tested by distance and difference.

I respect my brother for his honesty and consistency. He doesn’t pretend an attachment to our tradition and he’s not trying to mold it to his convenience. So when the call comes, any day now, that my sister-in-law has given birth, I will echo back to them the joy they will express and keep my aches to myself.

Jewish tradition teaches that each and every Jew is responsible for one another. I now share, profoundly, acutely and personally, the pain felt by so many other Jews whose relatives have opted out of our extended family.

The next time I have the opportunity to respond “Mazal Tov!” to a Jewish couple who have joined together to build a faithful house of Israel, I’ll mean it even more. But like the moment when the glass is shattered at the end of a wedding, it will be tinged with the bittersweet.


by  Lauren Freedman
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